Which Party Has Earned The Right To Be Called Champions Of The Working Class?
This morning, I responded to a tweet from Politics1 about how there is no room for conservatives inside a fascist movement, which is basically what the GOP has been morphing into. At one time, Pat Toomey was about as far right as you could get in Pennsylvania politics without wearing swastika armband. He hasn't changed... but the Republican Party has... and continues to as it devolved towards flat-out fascism. You may think that was inevitable when, in 2016, the party base looked at hard right conservatives like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and John Kasich and decided the face of the party should instead be be a transparent Times Square hustler.
New York Magazine columnist Eric Levitz agrees that the GOP has been changing pretty drastically but in his piece this morning, The Biden Agenda Could Reverse The Democrats' Losses With Working-Class Voters, he doesn't talk about fascism at all. His is the story of a fight for the American working class, something the GOP had basically ignored to the point of demonizing until relatively recently, and which the Democratic Party was built on and has now started to pull away from in a search for wealthy donors. The two parties are switching places-- a bad deal for the Party of FDR. Levitz thinks it isn't too late for the Dems. He's probably wrong... but then, I would have never guessed that Joe Biden-- basically the Joe Manchin of the Senate from 1973- 2008-- would be a possible agent of significant change for a working class his policies have always put at a disadvantage to his banister campaign financiers. And yet, his new and super popular COVID relief bill is undeniably geared right at the working class. He suggests a look at this survey from CBS that shows the electorate’s conception of whom the COVID-Rescue package helps-- and whom it does not-- and offers that as proof for the overwhelming warm feelings for Biden's first legislation:
For Democrats, this poll result may be even more encouraging than the law’s overall popularity. The party’s core challenge over the past five years has been the erosion of its support among non-college-educated voters. How to stem this bleeding without compromising the existing coalition’s myriad priorities has been a source of heated intra-Democratic debate: Moderates point to the culturally conservative views of the party’s working-class defectors and call for triangulation; progressives recall the human (and political) costs of Bill Clinton’s poll-chasing on immigration, welfare, and crime, and call on their party to place social justice above correlations masquerading as causation.
But if the public comes to see Biden’s party the same way it sees his first legislative priority-- as a friend to workers, not the wealthy-- then reconciling blue America’s substantive commitments with its electoral imperatives could prove easier than feared. No political party would be well-advised to forgo message discipline. But there’s reason to think that the more Democrats become associated with working-class interests in the public’s consciousness, the less they’ll need to worry about disassociating their party from left-wing social causes.
Democrats care about working people; Republicans care about the rich. From the dawn of the New Deal to the twilight of the Obama presidency, this partisan stereotype was one of the Democratic Party’s core political assets. The GOP had its own perennial advantages in the public’s consciousness: Republicans were routinely viewed as stronger on national security, public safety, and “the economy” broadly defined. But on the question of which party cared for the wealthy, and which for working people, voters said that Republicans were for the few, not the many.
After Donald Trump conquered the GOP, however, this perception shifted significantly.
In 2016, Trump campaigned as a different kind of Republican, one who disdained free trade, revered Medicare and Social Security, and believed in universal health care (in a manner of speaking). He also heightened the salience of immigration by centering his candidacy on luridly xenophobic proposals for restriction-- policies that were unpopular with the general public, but which attracted more sympathy from non-college-educated voters than they did from Democratic or Republican elites. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, concentrated its paid messaging on impugning Trump’s character, not his class allegiance. Whereas Barack Obama’s ads had cast the 2012 Republican nominee as the embodiment of private equity’s disregard for working people, Clinton’s ads portrayed the 2016 GOP standard-bearer as a bad role model for small children.
These simultaneous developments-- the Republican Party’s nomination of a self-styled “populist,” and the Democratic Party’s decision to center its general-election messaging on appeals to competence and inclusion rather than economics-- appeared to reduce both the extent of the Democratic advantage on class, and its salience to the electorate.
Trump’s heterodox noises on economic policy led voters to see him as the most “moderate” major-party nominee in a quarter-century. And the American National Election Survey found that the GOP nominee’s deficit on “which candidate cares about people like you” was significantly smaller in 2016 than it had been in 2012. There is some evidence that this had a causal impact on voting behavior. In 2012, a voters’ level of “resentment of the rich”-- as measured by their answers to questions like, “Do the rich have more money than they deserve?” and “Do you feel resentment for the wealthy?”-- strongly correlated with support for the Democratic nominee, even when controlling for partisanship, self-described ideology, and demographic characteristics. In other words, a white “moderate” swing voter who had no strong feelings about “inequality”-- but evinced strong resentment of the rich-- was significantly more likely to vote for Obama than one who lacked such class hatred. All told, resentment of the rich was “associated with an increase in the probability of voting for Obama of 11 percentage points,” according to the research of Boston University political scientist Spencer Piston.
But in 2016, the correlation between upward-looking class resentment and support for the Democratic Party all but disappeared. Voters who resented the rich were barely more likely to vote for Clinton than those who did not. Meanwhile, the disproportionately working-class subset of voters who support universal health care but oppose “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants went from being a Democratic constituency in 2012 to a Republican one in 2016. In other words, a decline in the salience of class resentment coincided with an increase in the salience of xenophobia.
Amid these shifts in issue salience, a voter’s income level became less predictive of their voting preference, as Trump narrowed his party’s perennial deficit with low earners. And this change in the class composition of each party’s support ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the presidency; the affluent voters she gained were worth far less in the Electoral College than the working-class ones she lost.
This same dynamic nearly cost Democrats the presidency again four years later.
While Joe Biden greatly improved upon Clinton’s popular-vote margin, his gains were concentrated among college-educated voters, who remained far more prevalent in safe blue states than in Rust Belt battlegrounds: Biden won the national popular vote by 4.4 percent, but the “tipping point” state of Wisconsin by just 0.6 percent. Ultimately, the size of Biden’s coalition compensated for its geographic inefficiency at the presidential level. But down ballot, the growing concentration of Democratic support in highly educated cities and suburbs enabled Republicans to shrink Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority and limit Democratic gains in the Senate.
What made the 2020 results especially unnerving for Democrats, however, was the spread of “education polarization” across racial lines. In the Trump-Biden race, non-college-educated Hispanic voters began voting more like non-college-educated white ones. Should that trend continue, the Democrats’ prospects in 2022 and 2024 will grow dim. Working-class voters heavily outnumber college graduates, and punch above their numerical weight in the Senate, House, and Electoral College. If educational attainment becomes the central cleavage in American politics, the party of college graduates will always lose.
But Republicans are staring down their own post-Trump nightmare scenario. The Trump coalition’s geographic efficiency has been a boon for the GOP in many respects. But it is nevertheless a minority coalition that’s heavily reliant on the support of working-class voters who were politically inactive before the party nominated a celebrity. If the GOP’s Trump-era losses among college-educated voters prove durable, while its gains in rural white turnout prove fleeting-- or worse, if its support among non-college voters reverts to the pre-Trump mean-- then the party will have great difficulty winning back the White House, even with a substantial Electoral College advantage.
The GOP’s concern with safeguarding its working-class gains is apparent in its rhetoric. As Ted Cruz declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “The Republican Party is not the party of the country clubs, it’s the party of steel workers and construction workers and taxi drivers and cops and firefighters and waitresses.” House Republican Jim Jordan recently offered his own iteration of the same sentiment, proclaiming, “The Republican Party is no longer the ‘wine and cheese’ party. It’s the beer and blue jeans party.”
But if a desire to further erode the Democrats’ association with proletarian interests suffuses Republican oratory, it is wholly absent from Republican policy. For its opening act of the Biden era, the GOP chose to display unified opposition to a relief program that boasted 70 percent support in polls, and which was poised to deliver $5,600 in cold, hard cash, along with thousands more in child benefits, to every working-class family of four in the United States.
Senate Republicans proceeded to put forward their own conception of a timely economic relief bill: a proposal to lift the tax on inheritances worth more than $11 million (if bequeathed by a single individual) or $22 million (if bequeathed by a couple). As Jonathan Chait notes, GOP lawmakers aren’t selling this change on supply-side grounds. They aren’t quite brazen enough to suggest that swelling the inheritances of superrich kids is critical to job creation or wage growth. Rather, they are arguing that “the estate tax may be the most unfair tax on the books.” Taken together, the Senate GOP’s opposition to the American Rescue Plan and support for estate-tax repeal constitutes a remarkably frank reaffirmation of its class allegiance: The federal government owes no further benefits to those who lost work to the pandemic, but it does owe millions in tax breaks to the scions of billionaires.
This gives Democrats an opportunity to further clarify which party stands for workers and which for elites. And the Biden administration just might capitalize on it. As Bloomberg reports, the White House is preparing to tee up a partisan skirmish over whether corporations and the wealthy should pay higher taxes:
Biden himself has previewed this argument. “We’ve seen time and time again that that trickle-down does not work. And by the way, we don’t have anything against wealthy people,” the president said Friday, “but guess what? You gotta pay your fair share. Because folks living on the edge, they’re paying.”
Thus, Democrats and Republicans are about to have a national debate over whether the tax code is unfair because the wealthy pay too little, or because they pay too much. This is favorable terrain for Democrats: Not only does the party hold the more popular side of the tax argument, the debate itself serves to heighten the salience of each party’s class loyalties.
One might imagine that the Democrats face a hard trade-off between attempting to stem their losses among non-college-educated voters by appealing to class resentment and retaining their support among affluent Romney-Clinton voters. This is theoretically possible. But there is no reason to presuppose it. As promised during the 2020 campaign, Biden’s tax plan will not raise the income tax rate of any household that earns less than $400,000. Its proposed increases in the corporate and capital-gains tax rates will take a bite out of some upper-middle-class families’ incomes. But the indirect nature of these levies-- and their modest consequences for non-superrich households-- makes them unlikely to provoke much backlash in the newly blue suburbs. Biden’s tax plan doesn’t pit the proletariat against the bourgeoisie; it pits the 99 percent against the one percent. Given the immense gap between America’s affluent and its working class, this may not be ideal in substantive terms. But as a political matter, nothing beats a policy fight that unites your opposition with the interests of a tiny, and widely resented, minority of the population.
Republicans understand this. As the New York Times reports, the GOP is barely bothering to message against the American Recovery Plan, opting instead to direct public attention toward immigration, where the party’s policy commitments have a bit more working-class appeal.
Maybe this “let them eat asylum seekers” platform will satisfy newly Republican working-class voters. The GOP’s hope-- and the left’s fear-- is that such voters value their cultural resentments more than their objective material interests, if only because the former are typically easier for lay people to ascertain (for a pro-life, working-class voter, it is easier to figure out which party agrees with her on abortion than it is to determine which party is telling her the truth about the impact of corporate tax rates on wage growth). Trump may have campaigned as a heterodox populist in 2016. But he governed as a loyal servant of the Koch network, and nevertheless gained ground with non-college-educated voters in 2020.
From another angle, however, Trump’s 2020 gains don’t look like an argument against the relevance of material interests to voting behavior but for it: Before the pandemic, Trump presided over best labor market in decades; after the pandemic’s onset, he presided over the most generous stimulus policy America had ever enacted. In September 2020, amid a raging pandemic, 55 percent of Americans told Gallup they were “better off now” than they had been four years earlier.
Last year, Biden offered working-class voters the cheap currency of campaign promises; now, he’s depositing thousands of dollars into their bank accounts. When it comes to making class warfare great (for Democrats) again, money may speak louder than words. If Democrats can preside over a post-COVID economic boom, while keeping class divisions salient by picking partisan fights over the minimum wage and PRO Act, they just might be able to have their progressive social policies and electoral dominance too.
Jason Call is the progressive champion running for Congress in northwest Washington state, for a seat held by a corporate Democrat. "We’re definitely at a fork in the road for the Democratic Party," he told me this afternoon. "I’m running for Congress precisely because I don’t think the Democratic Party has done enough for the working class. Having worked within local party politics for almost two decades now, I know how the Democratic Party has targeted their voter outreach, and it has absolutely been toward liberal minded but more wealthy (and older) people who have money to donate to the party coffers. These folks are also incrementalist in their approach to progress because they are comfortable in their housing, their healthcare, and their retirement, so the real needs of the working class are often not on their radar. These are what we have in the last few years called the ‘brunch libs’ who wanted Trump out of office, but were willing to give a pass to conservative Democrats’ legislative inaction because 'at least they’re better than Republicans.' The polling on the stimulus package proves that Democrats are capable of appeal to a broad majority, but my greatest fear at this point is that the help ends here, because this stimulus is not enough. We need systemic change throughout the entire economy, covering healthcare, housing, wages, transportation, education, and environment. In three months people aren’t going to remember a single $1400 payment that helped them pay a few bills. The Democrats could interpret this polling correctly and double down on recreating an economy that serves the working class. In doing so, they could probably bury the Republican Party forever. If they fail to capitalize on this momentum and continue to allow conservative Democrats to dictate the limits of assistance, we’ll likely see people again gravitate to a charlatan and demagogue, and the opportunities will be lost. It’s time for the Democratic Party to decide what they stand for."